150 Years Ago in the Civil War
As 1865 began, the armies in Virginia remained locked in siege operations, Tennessee was generally quiet after the Confederate defeat at Nashville in December, and much of the action in the south consisted of raids, skirmishes, and small scale fighting. The focus of active operations turned to the Carolinas.
In December, a combined Union army and navy operation attempted to capture Fort Fisher, located on a peninsula near the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was the last Confederate port still open to blockade runners, and it’s capture would sever one more supply line to a Confederacy that was running out of everything. The December expedition ended in failure, but in January, the Federals were back. This time, Major General Alfred H. Terry commanded the army assault force of 8900 men, replacing Major General Benjamin Butler. After the failure of the first expedition against Fort Fisher, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant requested that President Abraham Lincoln relieve Butler from command, an act that took effect January 7th. The Naval force consisted of 56 ships of the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron under the command of Admiral David Porter.
Approximately 1900 Confederates defenders were garrisoned in Fort Fisher, under the command of Colonel William Lamb. His superior was Major General W.H.C. Whiting, commanding the District of Cape Fear, with
General Braxton Bragg, head of the Department of North Carolina, in overall command. Besides the garrison force, a division of from the Army of Northern Virginia under Major General Robert Hoke was stationed near Wilmington, some 20 miles or so from Fort Fisher.
The expedition arrived at Fort Fisher on January 13th. Naval artillery pounded the fort and successfully hit and disabled several of the Confederate batteries there. Terry also put his troops ashore north of Fort Fisher. Hoke did not move and the landing was uncontested.
By January 15th, the bombardment had inflicted sufficient damage on the fort’s defenses that the ground assault was ordered. In addition to Terry’s army assault force, a 2000 man column of sailors and marines also went into action. The naval force attacked a corner of the fort on the ocean side of the fort called the Northeast Bastion, but was driven off by some of the few remaining artillery pieces firing canister and by rifle fire.
A division of army troops under Brigadier General Adelbert Ames then attacked the west end of the land side of the fort. The fighting was intense and at times hand to hand, with both Colonel Lamb and General Whiting seriously wounded in the process. Despite pleas from both Lamb and Whiting, Bragg would not send Hoke’s division to reinforce Fort Fisher, believing that the situation was in hand there and not wanting to risk losing Wilmington. It apparently didn’t dawn on Bragg that if Fort Fisher fell, the port of Wilmington would cease to function. Fighting lasted well into the night and the Federals slowly gained control until Whiting finally surrendered to General Terry. With this hard earned Union victory, the last Confederate port was closed to blockade running traffic.
Farther down the coast in Savannah, Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman ordered his army to begin a new march north through the Carolinas. As was the case with the campaign from Atlanta to the Sea, the objective was to destroy everything of military value along the way. The army would again forage for food and supplies rather than rely on long supply lines. Also, Sherman would eventually join with Grant at Petersburg, Virginia if siege operations there continued. Within a few days of Sherman’s January 19th order, the first Federal units began moving into South Carolina. Due to the size of the force and some delays due to inclement weather, all Federal units were not underway until February 1st.
On the political front, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on January 31st. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States. It had passed the Senate in April
1864,but had failed to pass in the house. Though President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, it was essentially a war measure that freed some, but not all, slaves. A constitutional amendment was necessary to completely abolish it, and Lincoln was determined to do so. There would be no turning back on the slavery issue. The amendment had Republican support, but Lincoln needed some Democratic votes as well for the amendment to pass the House. Through contentious debate, backroom politicking, and deal making, the amendment passed 119-56.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was then sent to the states for ratification. On December 6th, 1865, Georgia (under a reconstruction government) became the 27th state to ratify the amendment. With that, the necessary three quarters of the states (27 of 36 including former Confederate states) had ratified, and on December 18th, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward declared it in effect.
While the Confederacy had reached a point where military defeat was almost inevitable, there were some who still thought a negotiated peace was possible. Francis P. Blair Sr., politician, journalist, unofficial advisor to Lincoln and father of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Union General Francis Blair Jr., received permission from Lincoln to travel to Richmond to talk with Confederate President Jefferson Davis about peace talks. Though both Davis and Lincoln were skeptical that an agreement of any kind could be worked out, the Confederate president did name three men as commissioners for peace talks. They included Vice President Alexander Stephens, former U.S. Supreme Court justice and current Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Confederate senator Robert M.T. Hunter.
Lincoln agreed to have Seward meet with the commissioners in early February. The informal talks would go on as Sherman began his destructive march across South Carolina.